Photo: Frederic Lagrange
When I was 10 years old, friends of my parents appeared at the door of our home in Dayton, Ohio, culinary capital of the world. They were not expected and my parents were not home. I hugged them as if they were my long-lost "uncle and auntie" and asked, "Have you eaten?" No, they said, but they were starving. So I invited them into the kitchen and decided I'd whip up some fried rice.
I had never cooked fried rice in my life: I was 10. But I had seen my parents and grandparents cook it hundreds of times. How hard could it be? Like every good Chinese household, ours had leftover rice in the fridge (drier, day-old rice fries up best) and, of course, the necessary eggs, garlic, ginger, and scallions.
I got to chopping. I was decent with a cleaver even then because I liked to hang out with Ye-Ye—my dad's dad—and practice slicing and dicing. I scrambled the eggs over high heat with tons of oil, set that aside, added the veg and rice to the wok, tossed, added back the eggs, and drizzled in soy sauce. To be honest, it was probably not much better than a 6 out of 10—a bit too oily from the eggs and a touch too salty from a heavy hand with the soy sauce. But my new uncle and auntie loved it, and it made them smile.
I could make people happy through food: How cool was that?
Food, Always Food
"Chi le ma?" "Have you eaten?" In my family, this is the proper greeting when you see friends or family. We are not as concerned about how you are, but whether you are hungry. All present need an opportunity to eat together as soon as possible.
I was lucky to be born to Chinese parents who were avid travelers and always took me and my brother along for the ride. Food was the most important thing on any itinerary. We would talk about the next meal while enjoying the current meal. For my dad, literally a rocket scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, whom I have always called Pops, point A to point B would always necessitate a huge detour if point C was an Asian market, a great restaurant, or, best of all, a Chinatown. We once crossed the U.S. border on the way back from Toronto's Chinatown with the entire back of our station wagon filled with pink boxes of dim sum. My mom shared food with the incredulous guards. We had no difficulty getting through.
We were not rich growing up, but our family travels did include Asia and Europe. We would always stay in Hotel "Rinky Dinks" (our family name for cheap lodging) in Paris, where the door would smack up against one of the two double beds in the room when opened, and the bathroom was always down the hall. We would do this in order to afford a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant like Lasserre or Taillevent. Over the years, we visited Les Crayères in Reims, Chez Divellec (best seafood restaurant in Paris), and Senderens (Alain Senderens is one of the founders of Nouvelle Cuisine).
Often, on a trip in the States or abroad, we found our entire family at a Chinese restaurant. My parents did not believe in a kids' table, nor in food that was kid-friendly, thank God. From the start, I would eat anything, try anything—including snake, chicken feet (a personal favorite), insects, offal, stinky tofu, stinky cheese, pig brain sashimi (yes, really, in Tokyo, and it was amazing), and anything spicy. My older brother was a little more conservative, but the house rule was this: Everyone try once. If you don't like it, no worries. Mom (now called Nai-Nai by my kids) was the fish-head, eyeball, and tail expert—she would fight with my grandmothers for those beady eyes! There are only two things in the world I actually cannot eat: the notorious Southeast Asian fruit durian (tastes and smells like vomit, as far as I'm concerned) and natto, a slippery soybean goo.
My own kids, David, 12, and Henry, 10, have always lived by the same rules that I grew up with. David was born with serious food allergies (soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs, although they subsided), and today David is the more adventuresome eater: He even loves chicken feet. Henry knows what he likes, and he likes a lot: anything with soy sauce, my restaurant's crispy calamari, pot stickers, Nai-Nai's spring rolls, any vegetable (as long as it is cooked with garlic and/or onions), all stir-fried noodles and rice dishes, and all land creatures. He has an amazing palate, which begins with his ultra-sensitive nose: Once, at age 6, Henry smelled a wine I was swirling and sniffing, and pronounced that he detected "cooked cherries." Yes, the pinot noir did have a cooked-cherry aroma, but Henry had never smelled cooked cherries! He had extrapolated from eating the raw fruit. I like to think he has a chef's soul.
Truth be told, I would love it if either of my sons chose to be a chef, but it has been much more important to teach them what my parents taught me—to enjoy life with an open palate. Everything happens at the dinner table. And a lot happens when the dinner table is halfway around the world.